Saturday, March 22, 2008
For a three-hour tour
Turns out the M.P.s at Abu Ghraib gave this poor dude a nickname. Gilligan.
In this week's New Yorker, with the full text free online, Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris tell the story of Specialist Sabrina Harman, the unexpected photo-documentarist of what happened behind the walls of the prison.
The woman behind the camera at Abu Ghraib.
'...The M.P.s on the M.I. cellblock never learned the prisoners’ names. Officially, they referred to their wards by their five-digit prison numbers, but the numbering system was confusing, and the numbers told you nothing about a person, which made them hard to remember. So the soldiers gave the prisoners nicknames based on their looks and their behavior. A prisoner who made a shank and tried to stab someone was Shank, and a prisoner who got hold of a razor blade and cut himself was called Slash. A prisoner who kept spraying himself and his cell with water and was always asking for a broom was Mr. Clean. A prisoner who repeatedly soaked his mattress with water was Swamp Thing.
'There was a man they called Smiley, and a man they called Froggy, and a man they called Piggy. There was a man with no fingers on one hand, only a thumb, who was called Thumby—not to be confused with the enormous man called the Claw or Dr. Claw, because one of his hands was frozen in a half-clenched curl. The man they called Santa Claus was also called Snowman. There was the man they called Taxi Driver, because he’d been arrested while driving a cab, and there was a gaunt man they called Gus, but nobody knew why that name had stuck, and he was also sometimes called Mr. Burns, after the scrawny villain on “The Simpsons.”
'The nicknames made the prisoners both more familiar and more like cartoon characters, which kept them comfortably unreal when it was time to mete out punishment. Hydrue Joyner took credit for many of the nicknames. “It was jail, but, you know, you can still laugh in jail,” he said. Javal Davis, who had spent six years in the Army, “expecting to learn a career field, get some benefits for college, get a step ahead of my peers, get discipline, become a man,” enjoyed gallows humor as much as the next guy. The problem was that when you spend your nights doing nasty things to people you’ve got to endure them yourself. Davis had violence in him, and he found that making life miserable for men toward whom he had no personal animus could work him into a mounting, generalized rage. But aggression could get you only so far before the depression caught up with it. There were many ways to torment a prisoner according to M.I.’s demands, and for the most part there was nothing funny about them.
'“Smells,” Davis said. “Put them in a cell where the toilet is blocked—backed up. It smells like urine and crap. That would drive you nuts.” And you could keep shifting a prisoner’s mealtimes, or simply withhold meals. The prisoners ate the same M.R.E.s that the guards ate, but you could deny them the spoon and all the fixings. “If you got Salisbury steak, they got the Salisbury steak, not the rice that comes with it, not the hot sauce, not the snack, not the juice—the Salisbury steak, and that’s it,” Davis said. “They were starving by the time they’d get ready to get interrogated.” At that point, he said, it would be: “O.K., we’ll give you more food if you talk.”
'And you could inflict pain. “You also had stress positions, and you escalated the stress positions,” Davis said. “Hand-cuffs behind their backs, high up, in very uncomfortable positions, or chained down. Then you had the submersion. You put the people in garbage cans, and you’d put ice in it, and water. Or stick them underneath the shower spigot naked. They’d be freezing.” It was a routine, he said: “Open a window while it was, like, forty degrees outside and watch them disappear into themselves . . . before they go into shock.”
'Javal Davis had joined the Reserve in 1997, when he was in college. He was impressed by the R.O.T.C. drill he saw: “saluting, about-face—that looked kind of sharp, the rank and file, the order and everything.” He thought it was both an honor and honorable to serve his country, and he was willing to die protecting its freedom. “Especially after 9/11,” he said. He was born and raised in Roselle, New Jersey, across New York Harbor from the World Trade towers; he had won trophies in state championships in the hundred-and-ten-metre high hurdle, and he hoped one day to be a Roselle policeman or a New Jersey state trooper. “And to see that happen on my own soil,” he said. “It turned it up a notch.”
'But after four or five nights of running the M.I. block of the Abu Ghraib hard site, Davis said, “I just wanted to go home.” He felt that what he did and saw there was wrong. “But it was reaffirmed and reassured through the leadership: We’re at war. This is Military Intelligence. This is what they do. And it’s just a job,” he said. “So, over time, you become numb to it, and it’s nothing. It just became the norm. You see it—that sucks. It sucks to be him. And that’s it. You move on.”
'Sabrina Harman also said she felt herself growing numb at Abu Ghraib, yet she kept being startled by her capacity to feel fresh shocks. “In the beginning,” she said, “you see somebody naked and you see underwear on their head and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty bad—I can’t believe I just saw that.’ And then you go to bed and you come back the next day and you see something worse. Well, it seems like the day before wasn’t so bad.”
'Harman was a runner on the night shift at the hard site, filling in where help was needed. “I really don’t remember the first day,” she said. “I remember the first day of working in Tier 1A and 1B. The first thing that I noticed was this guy—he had underwear on his head and he was handcuffed backwards to a window, and they were pretty much asking him questions. And then there was another guy who was fully dressed in another cell they were interrogating also, or I guess they had already interrogated. That’s the first time I started taking photos.” The prisoner with the underwear on his head was the one the M.P.s called Taxi Driver. He was naked, and the position he was in—his hands bound behind his back and raised higher than his shoulders, forcing him to bend forward with his head bowed and his weight suspended from his wrists—is known as a “Palestinian hanging,” because it is said to be used in Israeli prisons. Later that evening, Taxi Driver was moved to a bed, and Harman took another picture of him there. Then she saw another prisoner, lying on his bed fully dressed, and she photographed him, too.'
'...On the same night that she started shooting pictures at the hard site, Harman wrote home [to her wife]:
The days are long here, 12 hour shifts. The prison has been quiet for the past two nights. The night before that another IED went off. No one was killed but it destroyed another Hmvv.
None of our unit has been in the mix of the mortars or IEDs. Not yet. Im afraid to leave the prison to go south to use the phones, they plant those IEDs on the roads and set them off as you pass. The sound is unforgettable. . . .
The prisoners we have range from theft to murder of a US soldier. Until Redcross came we had prisoners the MI put in womens panties trying to get them to talk. Pretty funny but they say it was “cruel.” I don’t think so. No physical harm was done. We’ve even got Sadams sons body guard here. . . . Boy did he fail his job. It sucks working with the prisoners because they all have something wrong. We have people with rashes on their bodies and who-ever is in the cell with them start to get it. . . .
I spoke too soon, its 3am, there’s a firefight outside. Its never going to be calm here! We have guys with TB! That sucks cause we can catch that. Some have STDs. You name it. Its just dirty!
The food sucks. I live off cup o noodles, that’s my meals. The meals they serve are T-REX which is out of a box. If I do come home, boy am I going to eat!
'The next night, Harman was back on duty with Charles Graner on the M.I. cellblock, and she wrote again:
October 20, 03—12:29am
The lights went out in the prison so here we were in the dark—in the prison. I have watch of the 18 and younger boys. I hear, misses! Misses! I go downstairs and flash my light on this 16 year old sitting down with his sandal smacking ants. Now these ants are Iraqi ants, LARGE! So large they could carry the family dog away while giving you the finger! LARGE. And this poor boy is being attacked by hundreds. All the ants in the prison came to this one boys cell and decided to take over. All I could do was spray Lysol. The ants laughed at me and kept going. So here we were the boy on one side of the cell and me on the other in the dark with one small flashlight beating ants with our shoes. . . . Poor kids. Those ants even Im scared of.
So that was the start of my shift. They’ve been stripping “the fucked up” prisoners and handcuffing them to the bars. Its pretty sad. I get to laugh at them and throw corn at them. I kind of feel bad for these guys even if they are accused of killing US soldiers. We degrade them but we don’t hit and thats a plus even though Im sure they wish we’d kill them. They sleep one hour then we yell and wake them—make them stay up for one hour, then sleep one hour—then up etc. This goes on for 72 hours while we fuck with them. Most have been so scared they piss on themselves. Its sad. It’s a little worst than Basic training ie: being naked and handcuffed. . . .
But pictures were taken, you have to see them! A sandbag was put over their heads while it was soaked in hot sauce. Okay, that’s bad but these guys have info, we are trying to get them to talk, that’s all, we don’t do this to all prisoners, just the few we have which is about 30-40 not many.
The othernight at 3, when I wrote you, the firefight . . . 3 killed 6 injured—Iraqis. . . .
Its time to wake them again!!!
'And later that same day, on her next night shift, Harman wrote:
Oct 20, 03
Okay, I don’t like that anymore. At first it was funny but these people are going too far. I ended your letter last night because it was time to wake the MI prisoners and “mess with them” but it went too far even I can’t handle whats going on. I cant get it out of my head. I walk down stairs after blowing the whistle and beating on the cells with an asp to find “the taxicab driver” handcuffed backwards to his window naked with his underwear over his head and face. He looked like Jesus Christ. At first I had to laugh so I went on and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my asp and started “poking” at his dick. Again I thought, okay that’s funny then it hit me, that’s a form of molestation. You can’t do that. I took more pictures now to “record” what is going on. They started talking to this man and at first he was talking “I’m just a taxicab driver, I did nothing.” He claims he’d never try to hurt US soldiers that he picked up the wrong people. Then he stopped talking. They turned the lights out and slammed the door and left him there while they went down to cell #4. This man had been so fucked that when they grabbed his foot through the cell bars he began screaming and crying. After praying to Allah he moans a constant short Ah, Ah every few seconds for the rest of the night. I don’t know what they did to this guy. The first one remained handcuffed for maybe 1 ½-2 hours until he started yelling for Allah. So they went back in and handcuffed him to the top bunk on either side of the bed while he stood on the side. He was there for a little over an hour when he started yelling again for Allah. Not many people know this shit goes on. The only reason I want to be there is to get the pictures and prove that the US is not what they think. But I don’t know if I can take it mentally. What if that was me in their shoes. These people will be our future terrorist. Kelly, its awful and you know how fucked I am in the head. Both sides of me think its wrong. I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong.